Wednesday 15 January 2014

The Spine Challenger 2014 - Part 1: Where's a chiropractor when you need one?

I first heard of the Spine Race last January, when social networks were ablaze with stories of woe and suffering from the hardy soles taking part in this 268 mile jaunt along the Pennine Way. The route starts in Edale in the Peak Distract, and makes it's way north through the more interesting bumpy parts of the Yorkshire Dales, Lake District and southern Scotland. Being January, and being Britain, the weather is normally wet, cold and miserable. Add to that the fact that you have to be pretty much self-sufficient, with checkpoints spaced up to 60 miles apart, and this is one tough proposition. Sign me up!

One for James Adams there
As the race approached, I realised that I was woefully underprepared. I hadn't even looked at what I needed to get for my kit (apparently shorts and t-shirt weren't going to cut it), had done no form of recce of any description, hadn't tried running yet with the sort of heavy pack I was going to need for all of the required gear, and hadn't really run any long distances at all due to an injury earlier in the year. I wasn't really relishing the idea of being away from my family for a week either, so decided to split the difference and do the easy version instead - the Spine Challenger.

Sorry - "easy" version.

The Spine Challenger is 108 miles, and is essentially identical in all things (required kit, start time, support on the course), except that you finish at the second checkpoint in Hawes.

The next step was to source some equipment for the race. I was a bit rubbish at coming up with any kind of list for Christmas this year, but I did get a pack of waterproof matches. Only one or two bits left! I'll do a separate blog post on the kit that I used, including what worked and what didn't, at a later date.

My brother in law, Trevor, is big into his mountaineering, so I asked if he had any bits I could borrow. As it happens, he was pretty amazing and was able to supply me with most of the things that I needed - sleeping bag, roll mat, stove, bag, etc. So with two weeks until the race, I finally had some kit (and more importantly, something to carry it in).

Next, I took a look at my wardrobe to find clothes to wear for extreme winter survival in the mountains. I was met by lots of pairs of shorts, but not much in the "don't die from hypothermia" camp of clothing. I needed to do something. So a quick call to one of my favourite ultra shops was in order. I called up Likeys to chat to Martin about what I could get away with, bearing in mind I'm a very cheap bugger.

It quickly became clear that my wardrobe was entirely unsuitable for what I was about to face, so I bought various bits and pieces on his recommendation, including (shock horror) a pair of warm running tights. Shudder. Surely it couldn't get cold enough to wear those could it?! Martin and Sue ran a sponsorship program last year to help supply gear to as many ultra athletes as possible in a variety of events. I was one of the lucky participants in this scheme, and so was offered a cracking deal on my purchases. All happy that I probably wouldn't die now, I awaited my delivery - which came the very next day! Now that's service. I imagine they were even smiling at the time, but how can you tell with internet shopping?

Now I had everything, it was time to pack. I left my wife downstairs and disappeared for the evening with checklist in one hand, laying all of the items out on the bed. There was no way in hell that all of the gear would fit. It is possible to spend a lot of money to shave off a few grams here and there, but I'm a frugal (aka cheap) guy and was making do. As it happens, the kit I had borrowed from Trev was top quality and I was able to squeeze everything in perfectly. A quick weigh on the scales told me 2 things; the bag weighed about 7kg (minus water and food), and more worryingly the Christmas period had really taken it's toll on me. Oh well, I would probably need the insulation.

I own the head torch and the waterproof matches.
I made my way to Edale for the start of the race on Friday. My journey up on the train was incredibly convoluted, as it meant the difference between paying £160 and £22. Again; cheap! I got there a little earlier than expected, dumped my bags at the Edale Peak Center where I was staying, and headed off to registration. It was great to see so many friends there, and it was lovely catching up with people. I grabbed my race pack from race volunteer extraordinaire Nici Griffin, who was running the logistics of the process with an iron fisted efficiency. We sat down to a full on race briefing from Race Director  Scott Gilmour which was a little more in depth than I am used to. The gist was that we would probably all die. I was mostly focusing on the giant knife attached to his waist, waiting for some kind of Crocodile Dundee "that's not a knife" moment that unfortunately never came. 

I got the sense that lots of people were very nervous about the race, which was understandable in hindsight. I was surprised at how relaxed I was, mainly because I was still playing catch-up with the idea of actually running the thing. I'm sure the worry will kick in next week. I went off to the pub to grab some dinner with Mimi Anderson, Allan Rumbles, Javed Bhatti and Neil Bryant, and it was great chatting to some of the other runners. I had promised myself not to do the standard packing/unpacking/repacking faff of a usual race, and did surprisingly well. I met up with Martin Wilcox who I had shared the awesome experience of Transvulcania with last year, and we both showed how rock and roll we are by going to bed at 9pm. Still, I slept brilliantly!

The morning arrived and the Peak Center was buzzing with activity as everybody was shovelling porridge down, rearranging their own private apothecaries of gels and potions, and packing and repacking their bags. The weather forecast was good, with sun and cloud expected for the day. Perfect excuse for shorts! I already felt like a bit of a wimp as I hadn't had a shave. I was going to have to run with a beard like a girl.

Told you it would fit. Note the light reading for bed time...
My race plan was simple; I wasn't going to race. This was an adventure for me - plain and simple. I wasn't in any hurry to finish. I had a taxi booked to take me to the train station on Monday morning, so as long as I was back for that I was happy. I figured that 40 hours was ample time to saunter around the course, chatting away, stopping at pubs, and generally enjoying a little bimble. If I raced, it would just mean getting in earlier and having to hang around a check point for longer. I figured that I would try and stay with Martin and his friend Luke Latimer, as staying in a group would make navigation simpler and would also make it safer in case anything went wrong. Here were my goals for this race:

  1. Don't die.

As we waited outside for the off, a little rain started to fall. Then it turned into drizzle. I decided to put my thin waterproof on while we stood around, as I really didn't want to start the race wet. We all lined up, and pretty soon we were off! As we headed out of Edale up onto the Pennine Way, the rain just got heavier, and the sky got darker. Not quite what was forecast. After a little while, it became freezing rain. Then hail. Then snow. I soon realised that my choice of attire wasn't quite right. In hindsight, trusting the forecast was a little naive, but I wasn't expecting it to be quite so wrong!

Beautiful sunny morning in Edale.
As we headed up Kinder Scout, it had become somewhat of a snow storm, with very limited visibility. I found a place to stop out of the driving snow, and put some more clothes on over my wet shorts and base layer. Not ideal, but at least I didn't leave it too long. I'm sure I'll get a lot of stick for wearing trousers, but my decision to not die from exposure trumped my "it's always shorts weather" hyperbole. 

I had lost sight of Martin and Luke and was now playing catch up to make up for all of the time I had lost struggling to squeeze into my thermal tights. Luckily, although I couldn't see more than a few feet in front of me, navigation was simple as I could just follow the footprints. I gradually made my way forward, chatting to people along the way. I ran with Mimi Anderson for a while, who was doing the full race and was getting nicely into her groove for the week. In many places the underfoot conditions were treacherously slippy, but it could easily have been worse.

I was actually secretly pleased about the weather. Yes it was chuffing cold, but that's why I had my thermals. I had entered a winter race dammit. I didn't want a pleasant sunny day. I can get those any time! Erm. Well okay, maybe not in this country, but you know what I mean.

As I was running along, I came across Paul Radford who was unfortunately in a spot of bother. He had popped the cartilage in his knee out, and was having trouble moving. I stopped to see if he was okay, and it quickly became clear that he wasn't going to able to get it popped back in again. I offered to help him down to the Snake Pass road where he would be able to get some help, but it took a little bit of persuading him that I wasn't bothered about losing any time. It was a real shame for Paul, as he has had a fantastic year with several podium finishes, and had been training specifically for this race with an aim to getting a top spot finish. However, he was taking the setback well and we had a good chat as we struggled down the mountain. Mark Hines came past and also offered to help, so between the two of us we attempted several methods to see what the best way was to safely descend, and soon found that following ahead and behind him ready to catch was the optimum method. This worked perfectly, so that when one of us fell we took all three with us. Genius. And given that Mark had already almost broken his wrist in a fall, we were in great form!

"Come to the Peak District" they said. "See the sights" they said...
We briefly thought about stopping and calling in mountain rescue, but Paul didn't want to be the guy that had to have mountain rescue called out - I joked that I could see the headlines now; "Mountain Rescue called out to rescue idiot on 268 mile run". But he was moving surprisingly well, and it probably would have taken longer to wait for them to make their way up with a stretcher, so we just pushed on.

Spirits were high despite Paul's obvious pain, and we laughed and joked our way down to the road. Every runner that passed us offered to help which is a testament to the good spirit of people in these kinds of events. Allan, Ben from Trail Ferret, and a small entourage of other runners caught up with us and joined our merry little band. We were now right at the back of the line of competitors, and were caught up by members of mountain rescue who were sweeping the field. We were very close to the road now, and I was starting to get very cold due to my wet base layers and the slow movement. Paul told me to push on now that he had some additional help, so I ran off to warn someone at the roadside that he was nearly there. I was, of course, about the hundredth person to tell them this so they were very underwhelmed by the news. This was the end of Paul's race unfortunately, but hopefully he will heal up quickly and come back strong later in the year.

The weather was calming down a little now, although visibility was still quite poor. I was now very much running on my own, and again trying to play catchup. I just wanted to reel in some people moving at a similar pace so that I could join a group and crack on. Luckily the tracks were still very easy to follow, and as the day went on the weather improved to provide the sun that we had been promised. Of course, I was now wearing about five layers and two pairs of gloves, so more faffing ensued to strip back down to more temperate running attire. It was a shame that the visibility had been so poor over the first section, as this contained some of the most stunning scenery of the whole course, but at least now we had some clear skies and could really take in some of the surrounding vistas. It was absolutely amazing, and a far sight different from my usual running routes in Cambridgeshire.

I'm actually screaming here because my thumb is frozen solid.
Much of the next section was easy to navigate, with the route largely being marked by a series of smooth flagstones. These can be deadly in icy conditions, but luckily it was a little milder than usual for this time of year, so they weren't as precarious as they may otherwise have been. However, that's not to say that they weren't slippery as hell, and many people went over on them. I was very lucky, and despite a few very close calls, I managed to hold my footing. I was very pleased that I had taken the decision to buy a new pair of shoes only days before the race. My usual shoe is the Salomon Speedcross, which I find works perfectly for me. But I took a punt on the Salomon Fellraisers, which are sort of a cross between the Speedcross and my other favourite shoe, the Salomon Sense Mantra, with a more aggressive outsole (review coming soon). Despite the worry of using an untested shoe on something like this, this extra grip was proving invaluable. Hell, nothing I was using was tested anyway, so why stop there! However, there was one negative part to the milder weather, which was the boggy terrain. My feet were getting very wet and muddy, but I didn't notice any issues. I have recently taken to pre-taping my feet using a small amount of Kinesio tape, and this seemed to be holding admirably despite the quagmire.

It was a long distance between checkpoints, and I was taken aback at quite how slow the progress was. I had anticipated it being a lot slower than a typical 100 miler (as if such a thing exists!), but not this slow. The first checkpoint would be in Hebden Bridge after 46 miles, but we were barely 25 miles in and it was already getting dark. An intermediate water stop was coming up soon at a pub after Standedge, which broke the first section up nicely in half. I hadn't seen anybody for a while, and as dusk set in I came across Mimi and another runner powering on. I managed to somehow sneak up behind her and scared the crap out of her when I shouted "hi", which was impressive giving the noises emanating from my poorly packed rucksack. Night was coming in, and I was a little nervous about being all alone so decided to stick with them. I was in no hurry, and it meant that I would have some actual human interaction for a while.

It's almost as if it's winter.
We ran together up past Black Hill and across Wessenden Moor, which was pretty easy going and pleasant. We joked around a bit, but my attempts at serenading everyone fell a little flat. Well my daughter loves my Meatloaf Bat Out Of Hell medley. As it happens, sticking with the group proved to be quite fortuitous, as the traverse through Blackstone Edge was very sketchy. Thick fog made visibility essentially zero, and my brand spanking new ├╝ber powerful Petzl Nao head torch was rendered useless as the light was just reflected straight back to me. Luckily Mimi's co-runner (I never got his name) had recced this section already so was able to guide us through without too many issues. Given that a misstep would have resulted in a fall into the invisible gaping maw to our left, this was very much appreciated. Now we just had to worry about the quicksand...

We rocked up at the intermediate checkpoint at the car park outside of the Whitehouse Inn and were greeted to a mug of tea and a mince pie from Amanda and the lovely ladies helping us out. Best checkpoint so far without doubt! I was very tempted to stop in for a drink at the pub, but was determined to get to the main checkpoint sooner rather than later. 

I was reliably informed that the next section to the main checkpoint at Hebden Bridge was pretty easy to navigate, with pretty nice paths the whole way and no near-death experiences to be aware of. I therefore decided to push on a bit as I was getting a little cold hiking. Once off the road, the path was very clear through the White Holme Reservoirs. I had been told to watch for the right hand turn after the "never-ending reservoir". The problem was that I couldn't actually see the reservoir. It was dark and very foggy, and I could barely see the edges of the path. Therefore judging where the end of the reservoir was proved a little difficult, and I turned off too early. There was even a sign which looked very similar to the Pennine Way signs (which were difficult to read at night). It didn't feel quite right though, so I stopped and took my GPS out for the first time in the whole race (pretty good going I think). As I thought, I had turned too early, so quickly headed back. Not a huge mistake - only about 5 minutes, which was my worst mistake so far. Not bad going at all, given my track record of geographical misalignments!

Nice of the sun to come out, just in time for night time.
I got back on track and saw a light approaching. It was a Spine runner called Rob, who was relentlessly marching along with a pretty good pace. I asked if I could join him for a bit, and we chatted along on our way up towards the Monument at Stoodley Pike. I was reminded of the Father Ted "small" vs "far away" sketch as, when we finally made our way to the base of the giant pillar, it proved to have been absolutely massive but a really long way away. Stupid perspective. 

Hebden Bridge was in sight, which meant that I would soon be reunited with my drop bag, and could get a good hot meal and clean myself up a little before the next leg. Or so I thought. Rob informed me that we were probably still a good hour and a half away, as the checkpoint was actually located past Hebden Bridge down in the Hebden Vale. I left Rob as we got to the descent into Hebden Bridge and started running again to warm up. The descent went through a winding path through Callis Wood, which was nice and spooky in the fog. 

At the bottom I was met by a mini checkpoint, and stupidly thought that Rob had gotten it wrong and that this was CP1. No such luck. But I was informed that I was in about 12th position in the Challenger which was quite nice. I wasn't trying to move too fast, but had been making steady progress catching up after my slow start.

After crossing the road, I was met by a climb up the valley that can best be described as "f'ing steep". Luckily I was feeling pretty spritely, and climbed well, even catching up to the runner ahead of me who had gone through about 10 minutes before. After some more climbing through fields, I descended down towards a small stream through a very narrow rocky path, narrowly avoiding slipping on the wet rocks. As I hit the road, I was directed into the village by a young girl who told me to head on for 1 Km and take the turning on the left just after the cemetery. Good grief, how much further was it?! So I ran along the road keeping my eye out for the turning, or at least the cemetery. But there was no sign. 

Luckily, a friendly voice hailed me, and the Dad of one of the Spine runners whom I had chatted with in the morning told me the turning was right here. There was, quite literally, no way in hell that I would have found the turning without his help. There wasn't even a cemetery. How the hell everybody else found it I have no idea. 

Thank goodness I was finally at the checkpoint. I'll just go down this path and it'll be right there.

No? Oh. Okay. Well I'll just go down this hill and it'll be there.

No? Okay, how about down this windy forest path? Maybe... I see some lights... Oh thank f*ck!!!

I assume that there is an easier way of getting here, as otherwise this is the most remote scout hut in the world. You'd have to have your orienteering badge before you even got to your first meeting.

I arrived into CP1 at about 23:30 to a big hug from Nicci, and was given instructions on where to go to eat, get my drop bag, sleep, etc. Surprisingly I was only about an hour behind Martin, so I had managed to catch up a bit from my position at the back. I decided to spend a little time getting myself sorted and ready to rock for the next (longer) section. In particular, I took off the base layers that had gotten soaked in the morning and replaced them with lovely fresh ones. I also peeled off my socks and cleaned my feet off to check for any issues. Luckily they seemed to be fine, and I was quite impressed that the taping had held so well. They looked a little trenchfooty on the ball, so the medic gave me some padding to use in addition to the kinesio tape. 

After I had spent some time getting ready, I went down to grab some food and found that Mimi and Javed had come in in the meantime. Things seemed to be going well for everybody, although fatigue was certainly setting in. I grabbed my sleeping bag and headed into one of the dorms to get a little sleep before I set off for the next leg. My head had barely hit the mattress when I fell asleep.

To be continued...

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